Thursday, December 31, 2015

First Day

It was ten minutes into my first day of work in the Radcliffe Room, the homeless ministry of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, when it happened.

A fight erupted right in front of me. I had been placed on the stage where we keep the women's clothing. No men allowed, but I did not know that at the time. He was looking for a sister or girlfriend or mother or friend or does it even matter? I had just met Cheryl*, a guest who wanted to volunteer to help organize the clothing closet during the week. On our way to find someone who knew more about this than I did, she stopped to look at a shirt that he was holding.

That's when it started.

"Bitch, you're too fat to wear this."

"This is way too small for you."

"You better lose some weight, fat ass, before you can have this shirt."

On and on and on and on.

Fat shaming and general degradation of a woman who was simply asking to look at the garment. I was in shock. He continued to agitate her, and she defended herself, as is a necessity when you are experiencing homelessness. She was not going to tolerate his insults that escalated into threats of physical violence, and rightfully so. When she raised her phone to take his picture so she could show his face to the police, he lunged at her, throwing the phone out of her hand to the ground two feet away from me. They rushed to be the first to reach the phone and squeezed their bodies into the narrow space between the pew on the stage and the railing guarding the edge of the stage. I felt trapped. The scuffle continued with the man spitting attacks and Cheryl screaming that he had her phone. 

I stood petrified. I was definitely not the calm, de-escalating presence I always thought I would be in tense conflicts. The only thought running through my head was what my supervisor, Alice, had told me a few days prior, "Whatever happens, do not physically put yourself in the middle of a fight. Do not put yourself in danger." I did not even know the names of any other volunteers I could call to help with the situation. Eventually the noise drew the attention of more experienced leaders in the Radcliffe Room. Other guests noticed the incident and pulled the two apart. Cheryl got her phone back, and other women came forward with claims that he has done this before. He has antagonized women in their space and caused trouble. Eventually others diffused the tension, and the two left the building.

I was left shaking with my eyes filling just to the brim with tears. This is not what I do. I keep calm in stressful situations. I am a strong leader. I have broken up fights before. But being a counselor to middle school campers is very different from being a first-time volunteer working with adults experiencing homelessness.

"Have you ever worked in this environment before?" asked my angel of the day, Sandra.

Of course I have. I have been doing community service for much of my life. I have served meals, done street outreach, cleaned houses after natural disasters, and built relationships with plenty of people all over the world. I got this.

Nope. Not even close. No. I have not worked with people experiencing homelessness over an extended period of time until this year.

As long-time volunteer, Sandra, showed me the ropes, I tried to process the violence I had just witnessed and learned more about the authority I have as a volunteer. Soon, Cheryl returned to the Radcliffe Room with a police officer in tow. On my first morning of work, I watched a fight break out in front of me and then became a witness in a police report. Not how I imagined the day playing out when I woke up that September morning.

A dynamic I have neglected to mention so far is that Cheryl is a white woman, and her aggressor is a black man. A black police officer was asking me detailed questions about the incident, including the specific shade of the skin of a man I had seen for maybe five minutes. Even though I knew that he had done something wrong, I felt so uncomfortable contributing to putting yet another black man into the prison industrial complex.

Radcliffe Room on a pretty full day
Photo by: James Wall
As it turns out, I have not seen the man since that first day. I honestly would not be able to recognize him if he were to return. However, Cheryl and I have developed a relationship that started when I was able to validate her story to keep her safe. I sat next to Cheryl as she gave a beautiful eulogy at the memorial service for a long-time volunteer. We have discovered that Cheryl is from Kentucky near where I volunteered for two summers. Cheryl has introduced me to her friends, and they are always a welcome light to my early Sunday mornings. 

Even when we feel helpless and incompetent, God is making all things new in this world. Even in the face of sexism and violence, God is with us. Even on our worst days, God sets the stage for redemption and resurrection. Together, as co-creators, we work to bring heaven to earth, to make this world as it should be. The work is difficult. The struggle is long. But together, we shall overcome.

*Name has been changed

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